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.
Apple 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.
Asus/Google Nexus 7
And the overall winner is ...
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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