Last year's Asus-made Google Nexus 7 was the first 7-inch tablet done right, and it quickly created a market for a media tablet, a more portable unit primarily used to read books, watch movies, and listen to music.
Although backward-thinking analyst firms and IT pros considered the iPad and the 10-inch Android equivalents to be "mere" media tablets, in fact they were general-purpose tablets, with the same mix of entertainment and business uses as, say, a Windows PC. The Nexus 7, by contrast, was designed to be primarily a media tablet, even putting the Google media services front and center on its modified Android home screen.
But the original Nexus 7 was a poor piece of hardware, a clearly compromised device meant to get customers with a low price. Compared to an e-reader, its color screen and multiple capabilities may have seemed advanced, but to anyone who used an iPad or a better Android tablet, such as a Galaxy Tab 10.1, it was an unsatisfactorily cheap device.
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Amazon.com's Kindle Fire HD followed a few months later, but it too was a compromised device. Then came the iPad Mini, which showed everyone how to do a media tablet, though for $329 rather than the $199 of a Nexus 7 or the $214 of a Kindle Fire HD. Its hardware quality put it head and shoulders above the Nexus 7 and the Kindle Fire HD, meaning you got a much better media experience. And it did everything a full-size iPad did, as long as you could read the smaller screen. Ironically, the Nexus 7 did almost everything a standard Android tablet could do, too, but many people never noticed due to its media-centered initial UI.
Now Asus and Google have reworked the Nexus 7, delivering a new model with significantly better hardware that's more in line, at least at the spec level, with what an iPad Mini delivers. The new Nexus 7 does cost $30 more than the old model, bringing the 16GB Wi-Fi model to $229 versus the iPad Mini's $329. The 32GB model costs $269, versus the iPad Mini's $429. The new Nexus 7 appears to be a bargain compared to the iPad Mini -- but is it? To find out, InfoWorld has updated its original deathmatch comparison of the three signature media tablets. Read on to see how the new Nexus 7 stacks up in that comparison.
- Media support
- Application support
- Web and Internet
- Business connectivity
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 -- 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 at Disneyland and your boss has a mini-crisis about one of your accounts.
The 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, as well as import your own music, videos, and books. It syncs your media content to all your devices and keeps your 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), or cloud storage, or USB drives to transfer files to these devices, but all are poor imitations 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. With or without AirTwist, DoubleTwist 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 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 or read 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. And Amazon lets you read its e-books nearly anywhere using the Kindle app available for most PC and mobile platforms.
Google lets you play music on an iOS device via a Web app, as well as read Google Play e-books on iOS through the native Google Play Books app -- but you can't watch Google Play videos on non-Android devices.
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, along with audio streaming services such as Pandora on all the media tablets. Over Wi-Fi, they all played streaming videos and audio smoothly.
The iPad Mini comes in versions for the AT&T, Sprint, and Verizon cellular networks, for $130 more. On the Verizon LTE network in San Francisco, a cellular iPad Mini sometimes struggled to keep up with the video stream -- a fact of life on cellular networks from any provider. The Nexus 7 does not come in a cellular version, though $349, 32GB models are planned to support the T-Mobile and Verizon networks. The 7-inch Kindle Fire HD has no cellular model; you have to get the 8.9-inch Kindle Fire, which belongs to a different class of tablets.
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 a brighter display and a better tonal range. By contrast, the Kindle Fire HD's screen is both dark and muddy. The new Nexus 7 has a much improved screen compared to the original model, which suffered the same quality issues as the Kindle Fire HD. The new Nexus 7's screen is brighter and has a good tonal range, close to the iPad Mini's quality level. But the Nexus 7's screen is quite a bit smaller than the iPad Mini's -- readily apparent if you play a movie on the two side by side.
A full-size, third- 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 -- and on the new Nexus 7's screen. But an issue with all three tablets is their screens' reflectivity: Even in cloudy daylight skies, you'll see a reflection of your face constantly in view.
In addition to the dingy look and the unpleasant cast that puts on videos, the Kindle Fire HD suffered from periodic stutters during playback, even of video stored on the device. Neither the iPad Mini nor Nexus 7 had playback stutters.
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 louder than the other two tablets, without the distortion the Kindle Fire HD has at maximum volume. The new Nexus 7 can get almost as loud as the iPad Mini, but with the surround sound option switched on (the default), you'll often hear distortion when music is playing (not so much for dialog).
The quality of the iPad Mini's speakers is good enough for boom-box-style use, such as at a party or in a 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.
The sound from the original 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. Its equalizer option in the Play Music app was both unintuitive to use and unable to eliminate the hollow tone. The new Nexus 7's speakers are much better, with clearer tones and range. But there's an annoying echo-chamber effect when the surround sound option is on, and a tinniness when it is off. Overall, the new Nexus 7's speakers are better than the old model's, but still inferior to the iPad Mini's.
The Kindle Fire HD's stereo sound is also tinny and a bit flat, even with the Dolby Digital Plus audio processing option enabled; there's also unmistakable distortion at maximum volume. Unlike the Nexus 7, the Kindle Fire HD offers no equalizer controls. Its speakers sound better than those of the original Nexus 7 but not as good as the new Nexus 7.
TV/stereo playback. The iPad Mini supports AirPlay streaming (if you have an Apple TV), along with video-out via HDMI and VGA cables. You can use it as a portable DVD and music player at hotels and other people's homes, as well as a presentation device at conferences and meetings via its video mirroring capability.
The new Nexus 7 supports the Miracast wireless video streaming protocol, like the Nexus 10 tablet, though compatible TVs and other devices are so far unavailable. If that changes, the Nexus 7 may gain the same streaming advantage the iPad Mini has today. The Kindle Fire HD has no streaming capability.
All three tablets let you connect to TVs and projectors via HDMI cables, which are available from third parties. The iPad Mini needs an adapter for its Lightning connector, just as the Nexus 7 needs an adapter for its SlimPort connector. The Kindle Fire HD has a MiniHDMI port. All worked just fine, both for playing videos on an HDTV and mirroring the 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 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. The interactive Multi-Touch style of e-book available only for iPads can be nothing short of amazing in presentation richness and flexibility -- it's little used, though, outside of textbooks. 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, which pack more pixels per square inch.
The Kindle Fire HD's reader and the Kindle app on both the iPad and new Nexus 7 load fast -- the Kindle app exhibited noticeable lag on the old 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 old Nexus 7, books in both the Kindle app and the native Play Books app were hard to read until I adjusted their text settings. But the new Nexus 7 fixes that, with reader-friendly default 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. 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 for reading print publications on a tablet comes down to the magazines' specific apps, and too many don't work well. 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 -- 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 those 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 very nice. But the new Nexus 7 has become a solid second choice.
iOS 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. 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 good news is that some of my media apps that didn't run on the old Nexus 7 -- such as the Economist and USA Today -- do run on the new Nexus 7.
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 has an extensive game catalog.
All the media tablets have the most popular social apps, such as Skype, Twitter, Pinterest, and Facebook, either preinstalled or downloadable for free.
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.
Although "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 like the old model, the new Nexus 7 will soon follow in the iPad Mini's and (8.9-inch) Kindle Fire'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 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 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 sync feature, and it's a great browser choice overall. Chrome is slightly more HTML5-savvy than Safari on the iPad -- Chrome scores 510 out of 500 points versus Safari's 386 in the HTML5test.com compatibility tests -- but Safari is better at Chrome in supporting AJAX controls. Thus, 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 does have a few hobbyist browsers available for it -- Maxthon, Opera, and Dolphin -- so you're not stuck with Silk.
Silk offers good bookmarking and history capabilities, but no private-browsing mode, 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. Among these, Yahoo Messenger, 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 all three tablets support.
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 old Nexus 7 supported only 2.4GHz networks, but the new Nexus 7 supports both 2.4GHz and 5GHz Wi-Fi.
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.
You 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 of 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 smaller keyboard for text-intensive work.
The Nexus 7 is your second-best bet for doing work from a media tablet. Its Android 4.3 "Jelly Bean" OS has solid security capabilities and Exchange support, its Email and Calendar apps are solid if unexceptional, and both Mobile Systems' OfficeSuite Pro and Google's Quickoffice HD Pro apps for Android are 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. As with the iPad, any compatible apps you purchased for other Android tablets can be downloaded at no charge to your Nexus 7.
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. Even if your Nexus 7 or other Android tablet can help you out in an emergency, your company may or may 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. A basic version of 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.
Security 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 it 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. There's another kind of security to consider for a media tablet, because it's likely to be shared by several family members. In this regard, the Kindle Fire HD and new Nexus 7 are the most secure.
The Kindle Fire HD includes the 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 new Nexus 7 lets you set separate user accounts on the tablet, so each person has his or her own apps and content. Furthermore, you can set up restricted profiles for users, so parents can control what apps and services their kids can access. You can restrict access to any downloaded app, not just predefined Apple titles as in the case of the iPad, and you can turn off location detection globally (not per-service, as in iOS). But there aren't the age-related restrictions for content as in iOS, so you can't for example restrict Google Play videos to G and PG-13 movies.
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 and new Nexus 7 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.
But iOS doesn't let you have multiple accounts, so if you want to set parental controls for your kid, you either need to have a separate iPad for each child (clearly what Apple would prefer you do) or enable them when you allow your child to use your iPad and then disable them when you want to use that iPad. You can't even save settings groups, so such enabling and disabling is a manual process for each setting. Not good.
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, which is offered by both iOS and Android as well.
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. The new Nexus 7's Android 4.3 and the Kindle Fire HD are designed for multiperson use, and both offer good parental controls and adequate corporate security.
The security winner. For business security, the iPad Mini rules. For family security, the new Nexus 7 and Kindle Fire HD are the winners.
No matter which media tablet suits you, 7-inch tablets come with a fundamental usability trade-off. Small screens mean 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 wide 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 that 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 feel right at home on the Nexus 7.
The Kindle Fire HD's UI is very simple. It's the same Carousel interface you may recognize from the Kindle app on an iPad or Android tablet. You slide from one type of content -- 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 content appear onscreen. Media windows typically divide their contents into two panes that you must switch between: one showing items previously purchased but not downloaded (Cloud) and the other showing items 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 may take 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 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 handle. However, the Nexus 7's front-and-center approach to media apps offers much more straightforward access as a media tablet out of the gate. The Kindle Fire HD is simple to use, but it oversells its stores to the point of annoyance.
It used to be that the priciest media tablet -- the iPad Mini -- had clearly superior hardrware, justifying its price over the cheaper but compromised Nexus 7 and Kindle Fire HD. The new Nexus 7 changes that equation. The iPad Mini's hardware is still superior -- its larger, better screen and better speakers stand out -- but the Nexus 7's is now quite good, for $100 less. The value decision is a tougher calculation to make than it had been, and factors such as preferred operating system and content stores may end up determining your choice.
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 a couple of days.
iPad Mini. The priciest media tablet is also the most souped up. It boasts the fastest processor and graphics, a usefully larger screen, and a rear camera that can take good-quality photos and videos. These make a real difference for gaming, video playback, and photography. (Note, however, that the iPad Mini lacks a flash and support for HDR photos, both of which you'll find in the current iPod Touch, iPhone, and full-size iPad.) 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. Although the 163 pixels-per-inch count for the iPad Mini is less than that of its competitors, the iPad Mini's screen quality still comes out ahead.
The iPad Mini is a fraction of an inch longer than the Kindle Fire HD but nearly an inch wider than the Nexus 7. Its screen size is nearly an inch longer diagonally, making for a noticeably larger screen. The iPad Mini is also noticeably thinner than the Kindle Fire HD and a tad thinner than the Nexus 7. The iPad Mini weighs 12 ounces, while the Kindle Fire HD weighs 14 ounces and the Nexus 7 weighs just 10 ounces.
The iPad Mini has no storage expansion capability -- a hallmark Apple limitation. Plus, it offers LTE versions 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 with 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 buy the 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 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. For that higher price, you get the best hardware of any media tablet.
Nexus 7. This tablet is designed with an unobtrusive look that focuses you on the screen's display. The new Nexus 7 has a more pronounced widescreen proportion, giving it the widest or narrowest feel, depending on how you're holding it, of all three media tablets.
The screen's visual quality is very good, though it's smaller than I would like. The new 323-pixels-per-inch screen is a big step up compared to the previous Nexus 7, bringing it close to iPad Mini quality levels.
Its speakers are decent -- better than the original model's -- but suffer from distortion at high volumes and an (unfortunate) choice between an echo-chamber effect or tinny tone depending on whether surround sound is enabled. The Nexus 7 now sports a rear camera, which is perfectly adequate. My big beef is its confusing user interface for in-camera adjustments.
In the new model, Wi-Fi support has been improved to include 5GHz 802.11n Wi-Fi in addition to 802.11g/n 2.4GHz, so your range and speed are now compatible to the competitors. Plus, the Wi-Fi radio supports the new Miracast video streaming standard that is expected to be adopted by TV and other entertainment hardware makers in the next few years. The Bluetooth radio has also been updated to the low-power Version 4.0. Finally, you get the near-field communications (NFC) radio that Google has long promoted but has gained little traction in peripherals.
Like the iPad Mini, the Nexus 7 offers no expansion capability for storage. 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 supports HDMI video output.
Performance is good. Although not quite 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 $229, whereas the 32GB model costs $269. A 32GB model with LTE cellular radio will cost $349 when it ships later this year.
Its 10-ounce weight is 2 ounces less than the iPad Mini and 4 ounces less than the Kindle Fire HD. In other words, it's the lightweight of the group, at least when it comes to actual mass. All in all, the Nexus 7 has good hardware that will meet many users' needs.
Kindle Fire HD. The display quality of the Amazon media tablet 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 Kindle Fire HD's screen is not nearly as good as the iPad Mini's screen, despite the fact that it 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 when playing streamed videos that I didn't experience on the iPad Mini or Nexus 7. It was also poky when opening media files and suffered from stutter occasionally during playback of stored movies.
You get a MiniHDMI connector for video-out, 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 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 Fire. Once you pay to remove the obnoxious ads and pay for the power charger block that isn't included as it should be (though it comes with a USB cable, so you can charge it from an existing 10W power block), the 16GB model costs $224 and the 32GB model costs $274.
Media tabletApple iPad Mini
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 $429, versus $274 for the 32GB Kindle Fire HD and $269 for the 32GB Nexus 7. The 32GB iPad Mini cellular model costs $569, versus $349 for the forthcoming 32GB cellular Nexus 7. The Nexus 7 is a pretty close second choice in terms of hardware.
The Nexus 7 has some nice attributes, especially its ability to run almost anything a full-size Android tablet can run, and its decent Web browser. The new model has addressed most of the hardware flaws in the original model, from its sluggish processor to its lack of HDMI support. The Kindle Fire HD is clearly the laggard, with hardware that was barely adequate a year ago. A refresh is planned for this fall, so if you want a Kindle Fire so that you can join the Amazon ecosystem, wait until that new version comes out.
Media tabletAsus/Google Nexus 7(2013 edition)
It should be clear by now that the iPad Mini is the best tablet because it does much more and at a much higher level of quality than the competition. The iPad Mini lives in a higher-class world than the other media tablets, and you're either willing to pay to be in that world or you're not.
For those who don't need all that or aren't willing to pay for it, get a Nexus 7 instead. You'll get a good tablet running an operating system that many people like. Just don't get a Kindle Fire HD.
This story, "Review: New Nexus 7 takes on iPad Mini and 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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